Located in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Fordyce Bathhouse is a historic European-style hot springs bathhouse facility that functions as a visitor center and living history museum for Hot Springs National Park. The area that now encompasses the city of Hot Springs and the land of Hot Springs National Park is centered around a number of natural geothermal hot springs, produced by the rising of heated groundwater located inside the Earth’s crust.
Traditionally, the waters of these hot springs have been believed to contain healing and medicinal properties because of their high dissolved mineral content, leading to folklore among a number of world cultures that bathing in the heated waters will cure or relieve ailments such as rheumatism. The hot springs of the Arkansas area were historically used by indigenous American tribes as healing sites, a tradition that was continued by early European colonists of the area. By the early 1800s, crude bathhouse structures had begun to appear in the area, most in the shape of canvas and lumber tents pitched over individual springs. Fires and erosion plagued early bathhouse construction in the area, however, and runoff from Hot Springs Creek led to flooding and stagnant water pooling, prompting the 1884 channeling and paving of the creek to flow underneath a city road.
The road today is part of Hot Springs’ Central Avenue and Bathhouse Row, which comprise its main business district. Founded in 1807, Hot Springs developed into a thriving European-style spa town throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, anchored around eight bathhouse facilities constructed between 1892 and 1923. The bathhouses are part of federally-owned land, originally designated in 1832 as part of Hot Springs Reservation, which was converted into a 5,500-acre National Park in 1921.
Permanent Attractions and Exhibits
Though the bathhouse movement fell out of popularity by the mid-20th century due to advancements in modern medicine, the eight Hot Springs bathhouses still stand today as examples of popular turn-of-the-century architecture movements, including Neoclassical, Spanish, and Italianate designs. In 1987, the Row was designated as a National Historic Landmark, ensuring the future preservation of the buildings. Of the original eight buildings, only four--the Buckstaff, Quapaw, Lamar, and Fordyce--are open to the public today. Traditional European bath services are provided at the Buckstaff and Quapaw, and the Lamar space has been converted into the Bathhouse Row Emporium, which serves as the National Park’s official gift shop.
Opened in March of 1915, the Fordyce Bathhouse is the largest and most expensive bathhouse on the Row. It was designed by Little Rock architectural firm Mann and Stern at a cost of over $212,000, utilizing Spanish and Italian design elements to create an overall Renaissance Revival aesthetic. The facility’s construction was spearheaded by Colonel Samuel W. Fordyce, a Civil War soldier and Hot Springs community planner who was an avid proponent of the medicinal properties of thermal springs.
Throughout the early 20th century, the three-story Fordyce facility became emblematic of the pinnacle of the bathhouse movement in America. During its height of operation, mens and womens bathing facilities were provided, including steam rooms, hydrotherapy rooms, and full bath halls, with practices centering on a holistic healing approach. The facility also included a gymnasium, bowling lanes, a billiard room, and a museum of Native American relics, along with an assortment of state rooms for meetings, conversation, and quiet study. A fountain on the bathhouse’s grounds also utilized heated water from the area’s 47 springs.
Though the Fordyce ceased its bathhouse service in June of 1962, the first facility on the Row to suspend its operations, it was fully restored by the National Park Service in 1989 for use as a visitor center for Hot Springs National Park. Today, it operates as a complete living history museum, open to all visitors of the National Park. Park maps and informational materials are provided at the center, along with a short orientation film highlighting the history of the park, town, and bathhouses.
Visitors may also embark on self-guided tours of the bathhouse’s three floors and basement, which contain a number of historical exhibits about the bathhouse’s operations and amenities and the history of spa practices in Europe and the United States. A floor plan pamphlet is provided, detailing the location and historical use of the facility’s rooms. In addition to fully restored architectural and decorative elements, many of the bathhouse’s original amenities are still stocked and on view, including vintage manicuring and grooming goods. Guided tours are also offered twice daily throughout the park’s regular operating year, with park docents elaborating on the building’s exhibits and history. Reservations for tours are not required for individuals, but large groups may book private tours through the park in advance.
101 Reserve Street, Hot Springs , AR 71901, Phone: 501-620-6715